HERNDON, Va. — NASA’s former director of solar system exploration, Orlando Figueroa, will lead a group tasked with planning the scaled-back robotic Mars mission the agency is pursuing after its withdrawal from an international campaign to return a Mars sample to Earth.

Figueroa, a one-time NASA Mars czar who left the agency in 2010 to become a consultant, will head the Mars Program Planning Group. In late March, the group will present NASA science chief John Grunsfeld with a concept for a $700 million Mars mission that melds science, technology and human spaceflight goals and launches in either 2018 or 2020.

Figueroa’s appointment was announced by Grunsfeld at a Feb. 27 meeting here of the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG), a community forum for Mars scientists.

“Probably what Orlando’s team will come up with is something like the [Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter] experience,” Grunsfeld said. That mission, which launched in 2009 to support NASA’s since-shelved ambitions to return astronauts to the Moon, was designed to map the Moon, take radiation measurements, search for traces of water ice, measure the temperature at and below the lunar surface, and perform a technology demonstration of a mini-radio-frequency instrument.

Figueroa said more details about NASA’s new Mars mission should be available at the 43rd Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, to be held March 23 near Houston. Figueroa’s team will make their final report public around August. NASA will spend about $30 million this year on planning for its revamped Mars mission, which is known in budget documents as Mars Next Generation.

NASA is restructuring its robotic exploration program after the White House’s 2013 budget request, released Feb. 13, proposed cutting the Mars exploration budget 40 percent to about $360 million. The cut, rumors of which surfaced late last year, sealed NASA’s withdrawal from the multimission ExoMars sample-return campaign with Europe and Russia. The first two missions in the international campaign remain scheduled for launch in 2016 and 2018.

Mars sample return was named the U.S. planetary science community’s highest-priority big-ticket mission in a NASA-sponsored 10-year plan, known as a decadal survey, that the National Research Council put out early last year.

According to the decadal survey, Mars exploration that does not further that end should only be conducted in the context of smaller, cheaper missions.

“This is the bottom line: New missions to Mars that lead directly to sample return have very high priority,” Steven Squyres, the Cornell University astronomy professor who chaired the most recent planetary science decadal survey, said Feb. 27 during the MEPAG meeting here.

Conversely, “new Mars missions that do not lead directly to sample return should be openly competed via the Discovery program,” Squyres said. NASA Discovery missions are cost-capped at $425 million.

“With sample return, they didn’t mince the words in the decadal survey,” Figueroa said, acknowledging that his group must design a mission that not only supports Mars sample return but also passes muster with the White House budget hawks who nixed NASA’s involvement in such a campaign because it would tie up too much funding for too long.

Asked whether he thought there was a credible sample-return alternative to the the collaborative, multiphase approach the White House just rejected, Figueroa hedged. “I think so,” he said. “But we’ll see.”

What form NASA’s next robotic mission to Mars takes has yet to be decided. Grunsfeld kept the door open for either an orbiter or a rover. Some scientists here, however, raised doubts that NASA could afford a rover capable of contributing to an eventual sample-return mission for $700 million.

NASA’s flagship Mars Science Laboratory, a car-sized, nuclear-powered rover now on its way to the red planet, is expected to cost $2.5 billion by the time it completes its two-year mission. It cost $1.8 billion to build and launch. The much smaller, solar-powered twin Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, 174-kilogram crawlers that launched in 2003, cost about $800 million to build and launch. Factoring in the cost of extended operations, the price is closer to $1 billion each. Spirit went dark in May, but Opportunity remains operational.

Delaying a Mars Next Generation launch until 2020 would give Grunsfeld two more years over which to spread the mission’s development cost, but it would also mean a loss of 150 kilograms of payload due to the less-favorable relative positions of the Earth and Mars as they orbit the sun. Optimal Mars launch windows occur about 26 months apart, but not all such windows are created equal.

“The sweet spot is 2018,” Grunsfeld said. “2022 is considerably worse than that, 2024 is sort of back to the 2020 level.”

Meanwhile, after shirking on its commitment to partner with the European Space Agency (ESA) for ExoMars, NASA says it wants international partners to join its Mars Next Generation mission.

An ESA official at the MEPAG meeting said the U.S. agency would have to take the lead if it wanted to bring Europe on board with the project.

“I think this morning I heard that the door was open, but I didn’t hear a real invitation here,” said Rolf de Groot, head of the ESA robotic exploration coordination office. He added that ESA was “open to discuss any possibility on future cooperation.”



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Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.